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After Activision closed Shaba Games, studio head Chris Scholz founded social game dev Free Range Games. Now he tells Gamasutra that mid-tier console game development is "last place you want to be right now."

Kris Graft, Contributor

May 25, 2011

5 Min Read

Margaret Thatcher once said, "Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides." Shaba Games found itself standing in the middle of the road in the late-2000s, making video games that weren't part of parent Activision's profitable "low-end" segment, and not cranking out (or receiving resources) for high-budget, blockbuster franchises like Call of Duty. It was somewhere in between. Shaba wasn't exactly changing the face of interactive entertainment, releasing games like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, some Tony Hawk ports, and other titles based on some notable brands. But the studio was able to put its nose to the grindstone and earn respect from industry peers in the years after its founding in 1997, and into its acquisition by Activision by 2002. Shaba went on for about seven more years following that acquisition before parent Activision closed the studio in 2009. Former studio president Chris Scholz now realizes that he has to commit to a lane -- and hopefully it's the one going with the traffic. Today he's president of online-focused Free Range Games, a 20-person Bay Area studio that is targeting the core gamers that use Facebook. The studio's first game is the online multiplayer action title Freefall Arcade, a Facebook game that relies on microtransactions, and that also offers an option for unlimited play for a one-time charge of 30 Facebook tokens, or $3. "We found ourselves at Shaba caught in that great middle," he tells Gamasutra. It wasn't an ideal situation, he realized. "In console development, you have the elite, top-tier, triple-A budgets and titles -- the Call of Dutys, the things that command enormous budgets and the quality bar is just huge." "Then there are the unbelievably low-budget games ... And then there's the middle. And the middle in console development is the last place you want to be right now," he warns. "[That's] where you've got the top 10 titles that are selling more and more, and then you got all the kind of chipper games including stuff on iOS and whatnot that have really kind of destroyed that middle." Coming from a console development background under the umbrella of Activision, Scholz's definition of "middle" might be different from other game developers' -- these middle-ground games can still require immense sums of money, making them an inherently risky proposition. "A really hard bet right now is anything [in the middle]," he explains. "If you're trying to make a $20-$25 million-budget game, that sounds like an enormous amount of money, but your Call of Dutys are gonna take $100 million or something, or $50 million. It's hard to compete." Scholz isn't the first one to recognize that the mid-level IP is under major threat of being squeezed out by the big blockbuster franchises on one side, and the emerging mobile, social, small-scale digital and online categories from the other. At GDC earlier this year, Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski said, "I'm going to go on the record and say that I believe the middle class game is dead." Others industry watchers have also questioned the category's viability. But it's companies like Shaba that learned the truth first-hand. When Shaba closed down in 2009, in Scholz's mind he had two choices: either try to take on massive games like Call of Duty or go after new markets. To him, the most realistic route was to go after the social networking platform with a new studio, Free Range Games. But Scholz realized that just as going after Call of Duty is a losing proposition, so was trying to compete with social gaming giant Zynga in this new market. The fact is, there is always a risk. It's just a matter of mitigating or controlling it as much as possible. "We're console developers, and I know I'm not going to be able to make a better FarmVille than Zynga is," he admits. "And I'm not going to be able to make a better game for my mom than Zynga can." Free Range Games is targeting social network users who are interested in games with more of a traditional core gaming slant. The most important difference between the console and the Facebook platform, Scholz says, is the low barrier of entry for Facebook gaming. "If you can deliver a console quality experience and it's always just a button-click away, and everyone can play for free -- that's hard [for traditional retail games to] compete with," he says. "Would you rather jump on Facebook [and play a free, console-quality game], or get in your car, drive down to Best Buy, and spend $60 on something you don't know if you even want to play or not?" It's a bleak picture that Scholz paints for mid-tier studios. But the good news with emerging business models like Facebook, mobile and online distribution, there are still opportunities to do game development and maintain a viable business, without owning blockbuster IP. "Those [mid-tier] gigs are getting harder and harder to find, because none of them are making money," he says. "I know Activision the best [in my own experience]. I have no bad feelings towards Activision, or the people there -- you look at their business decisions, and you're like, 'Well, ok, if I was put in the same position, I'd probably do the same thing.'"

About the Author(s)

Kris Graft

Contributor

Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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